Stories of horror and despair are emerging from Tonga after a tsunami swept through the Pacific island nation.
Locals described waves crashing into their homes as they ate dinner, and one man had to carry his grandmother as they fled to the roof of their house.
Waves surged through coastal Tongan areas after Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai erupted around 5.30pm on Saturday, NZ time, following an earlier eruption on Friday that sent ash, steam and gas 20 kilometres into the air.
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‘You could hear screams everywhere’
Mere Taufa said she was inside the house with her family, getting ready for dinner when they heard and felt the eruption.
“It was massive, the ground shook, our house was shaking. It came in waves, my younger brother thought bombs were exploding nearby,” Taufa said.
“My first instinct was to take cover under the table, I grabbed my little sister, and screamed at my parents and others in the house to do the same.”
She said next thing they knew water had filled their home.
“We just knew straight away it was a tsunami. Just water gushing into our home.”
She saw the walls of one of her neighbours’ homes collapsed, from her own window.
“You could just hear screams everywhere, people screaming for safety, for everyone to get to higher ground.”
Locals worried about what the night will bring
Tevita Sailosi carried his elderly grandmother to the roof of their Nuku’alofa home after the tsunami hit.
“We’re still in shock to be honest, first we heard the explosion, and then water was in our house,” Sailosi said.
His family was safe, but worried about what the night would bring.
“Hopefully we’re out of this now, and there aren’t any more waves. Right now we’re just staying put, we’ve got our phones and radio on, for any updates.
“We’ve heard screaming, people have helped where they could. We’ve also heard some singing too, so that’s lifted our spirits a bit. We just hope everyone else is safe out there.”
A local who did not want to be named told Stuff the New Zealand High Commission complex was “filled with people, and they’re running out of food to feed them”.
They said “Sopu, Popua, Fangaloto, Patangata were underwater at last light” and it was “scary dark everywhere”.
“One boy who just arrived soaking wet said he ran out of his friends home not knowing what happened to his family. He’s not sure if they made it out of their home as they don’t have a car to leave in.”
The volcano is located about 30 kilometres south-east of Fonuafo’ou island in Tonga.
New Zealanders warned to move off beaches
A national advisory was issued by New Zealand’s National Emergency Management Agency shortly after 8.15pm, warning it expects coastal areas on the north and east coast of the North Island to experience “strong and unusual currents” and “unpredictable surges at the shore”.
NEMA said there is a danger to swimmers, surfers, people fishing, small boats and anyone in or near the water close to shore.
People in or near the sea should move out of the water, off beaches and shore areas and away from harbours, rivers and estuaries until at least 4am on Sunday, and people were warned not to go to the coast to watch “unusual” wave activity.
Coastal inundation (flooding of areas near the shore) is not expected, and there was no need to evacuate other areas unless directly advised by local civil defence authorities, the advisory – issued about 8.15pm – stated.
The currents and surges would continue for several hours and the threat “must be regarded as real” until the advisory is cancelled, NEMA said.
‘Raining’ stones in Tonga
Meanwhile in Tonga, Jese Tuisinu, a reporter at Fiji One, posted a video on Twitter showing it was “dark” in parts of the island, and said people were “rushing to safety” following the eruption.
United States-based former safety and protection cluster coordinator for the Ministry of Internal Affairs Lavinia Taumoepeau-Latu was on the phone with her husband at the time, but lost the connection and had not been able to get back in touch for an hour.
While they were speaking, it went dark and began raining small stones in Tonga.
She said when they were speaking, her husband told her there were people trying to evacuate to higher ground, but as there was only one main road from the town messages on the radio were telling people from central and eastern areas to stay put to allow others to evacuate.
“The area he was at I would imagine was just the dark clouds and stones. The town area and coastal are would have been the focus for tsunami,” she told Stuff.
Mary Fonua, a journalist based in Tonga’s capital Nukuʻalofa, told 1News on Saturday evening that the situation was “precarious”.
“You’ll forgive the wobble in my voice because we’ve had a very frightening hour,” she told 1News.
Fonua said there were a series of “huge explosions” as the volcano erupted and was followed by waves about 15 minutes later, and said “huge, rolling” waves were heading to a nearby, low-lying settlement.
“This long white wave, we could see coming from the horizon. After about three waves it had come over the road and into our garden,” she told 1News.
Fonua said she could see lightning flashing in the direction of the volcano, which she described as “still very active”, and said she could feel ash on her forehead and eyes.
Warnings for Fiji and American Samoa
The United States has issued a tsunami advisory for American Samoa.
The US Emergency Alert Twitter page said a “hazardous” tsunami had been generated by volcanic activity in Tonga, and monitoring was underway to evaluate the threat.
The Fijian Government has also advised those living in low-lying coastal areas to move to higher ground in anticipation of strong currents and dangerous waves. Fiji has opened evacuation centres, including in schools, due to the “unusual tidal waves”.
Meanwhile, there have been reports on social media from as far away as neighbouring Fiji – northwest of Tonga – of hearing or feeling the eruption.
Dr Frank Ross, who lives in Suva, Fiji – over 800km away from Tonga – said there had been “constant, on-and-off booms” for over half an hour that were still ongoing at 7pm NZ time.
“The house has been shaking, I’ve figured out that it must have been from this eruption.
I went outside, and it sounded like this constant boom, boom, boom in the distance, but there wasn’t any thunder … it must have been massive,” he said.
“It was even shaking a few minutes ago – it comes and goes, so it must be a series of eruptions. It’s been going on for half an hour or 45 minutes.”
Ross said there were no signs of any disruption to the sea near his home, which he said was about 100m from the sea.
New Zealand reaction
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) said there were 18 New Zealanders registered on SafeTravel as being in Tonga.
MFAT had “no information” yet on whether any New Zealanders had been affected.
All New Zealanders in Tonga are advised to register their details on www.safetravel.govt.nz.
If you require consular assistance please contact the New Zealand High Commission in Nuku’alofa on +676 23122 or for consular emergencies +64 99 20 20 20.
Meanwhile, Metservice reported a “pressure surge” from the latest eruption had been observed in weather stations across New Zealand.
People on social media were also reporting hearing ‘sonic booms’ across New Zealand.
Waves struck the Pacific Island kingdom after the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai erupted.
Tauranga couple Kris and Tim, who didn’t want their last name used, believed they felt the eruption while sitting in their living room.
“We were watching TV and the wind is blowing, birds are tweeting, so over top of all that we heard a very loud rumble, like a boom, and we both looked at each other and said ‘what the heck was that?’.
“It was very intense, it was a low rumble very far away,” they told Stuff.
“It was like Jurassic Park. As if the T-Rex was coming in the distance and the water on the dash is vibrating. That’s what it was like.”